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ELIZABETH: Modern Thriller, Funny Clothes

With two Australians heading the cast and an Indian director giving new meaning to the material, Elizabeth is one historical drama that is a modern thriller in funny clothes. PAUL FISCHER talks to Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush and director Shekhar Kapur.

"this was such a dream role" Cate Blanchett

"She was an extraordinary woman, so full of passion and intensity; this was such a dream role", Blanchett enthuses. Of course it had its downsides, too: "Oh hair, hair, hair! My career is wig after wig after wig," she once lamented, after her hair had to be slightly shaved for some key sequences.

A year ago, the former Aussie NIDA graduate was on the cusp of stardom. These days, Blanchett has to employ a tough Los Angeles-based personal publicist to manage the media barrage, and was virtually unavailable at the recent Toronto Film Festival, nor did she do much media at the Venice festival. But then she's already one of this country's most successful actresses and critics are dazzled by her work as Elizabeth Tudor, Virgin Queen extraordinaire, who survived all in an era of plots and counterplots.

While she was filming Elizabeth, immediately following the release of Oscar and Lucinda, Blanchett noted that her take of this famous monarch may not necessarily appeal to historical purists. "I must warn you, it's not going to be a conventional historical biography. We're taking bits and pieces of her life."

"He was a tough nut to crack" Geoffrey Rush on Walsingham

Playing the part of the devious Walsingham, is another Australian export, Geoffrey Rush. The Oscar-winning actor, now shooting the big-budget Mystery Men in Hollywood, also went through a stage of doing period dramas: Les Miserables, Shakespeare in Love and now Elizabeth. "I guess it's a bit odd that I'm seen in a historical light", Rush says. Walsingham is one of history's great historical mysteries, a kind of Elizabethan secret agent, if you will, and Rush chews up the scenery with this role. "He was a tough nut to crack", says Rush. "He's a mysterious figure about whom we get to know very little, and so he was fun to play. He was also a very unpleasant chap, one who would stop at nothing to achieve his ends." Rush had worked with Blanchett twice before - on the stage. He is unreserved in his praise for the young actress. "She has a highly tuned inner life that she's obviously comfortable with and is able to play with," says Rush. The pair are hypnotic on screen.

It's somewhat ironic that Elizabeth stars a number of cultural outsiders in this tangled story of power and intrigue. The film's director, Shekhar Kapur, is Indian, and is making his English-language directing debut. When I spoke to him, Kapur was editing the film in Melbourne, working with Australian editor Jill Bilcock. "The film is made by a bunch of colonials, you might say," Kapur says laughingly. The director's previous film, the cult hit, Bandit Queen, didn't seem like the kind of movie that would encourage the British producers of Elizabeth to hire him as its director. Indeed, Kapur knew absolutely nothing about the famed monarch before embarking on this project. "It's true, I was completely in the dark about her, and British history, generally", explains the quietly spoken filmmaker. "But I think that was a good thing, because it meant coming on board with absolutely no preconceptions of the period. Therefore I could approach it all with a modern freshness that we all believe it needed."

"did that title refer to her sexual or political virginity?"

Historical purists may be alarmed at the extent to which Kapur shies away from total historical accuracy, in depicting Elizabeth's early reign, but none of this concerned him. "I was not interested in making a biography of her life, but to take an aspect of her life and examine that. In so doing, I wasn't concerned too much about being very close to history. The events are all recorded, then one interprets the events to suit that particular aspect of that life you have taken. So in a way it's an attempt to capture the spirit of the person, and then to portray that." For Kapur, capturing the spirit of Elizabeth, meant examining the concept of the title 'Virgin Queen'. "That's what was interesting to me; did that title refer to her sexual virginity or was it a sort of political virginity? That's what ended up fascinating me."

"he is such a powerful actor" on Geoffrey Rush

Kapur's take on Elizabeth is then a surprisingly modern one, dealing, in some ways, with the world's first feminist. "For the first time in history we had a queen reigning without a husband, and that was unheard of in such a patriarchal society." That was also what attracted Blanchett to the role.

Blanchett was not the original choice to play Elizabeth; Nicole Kidman was all but signed to do it when the film was green lit. But scheduling problems prevented Kidman from doing the film, and Kapur was convinced that this other Aussie actress might be perfect. "I'd never heard of Cate before we cast her", Kapur confesses. "But I saw some rough footage of her in Oscar and Lucinda and was just blown away. Apart from her breathtaking beauty, here was an actress of indomitable strength who was perfect for this character." Coincidentally, Kapur was just as willing to cast Australian Geoffrey Rush as Walsingham "simply because he is such a powerful actor, and turned out to be a joy to work with."

"will become a major star through this film." Kapur on Cate Blanchett

For Kapur, whose film has already received glowing reviews, Elizabeth "was an important learning process, both personally and professionally. I hope audiences will see it as a modern thriller featuring characters who happen to wear funny clothes." And Kapur is predicting that Blanchett "will become a major star through this film." In some ways, the actress is mirroring her character's fortunes. The Virgin Superstar? Kapur laughs at the ironic parallels.

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The setting is London, 1554. The story opens some years after the death of King Henry VIII, whose split with Anne Boleyn resulted in the formation of what became known as Anglicanism, when Henry cut himself off from the Papacy. Out of that tempestuous union, Elizabeth Tudor was born. The film opens on the closing days of the termagant Queen 'Bloody' Mary (Kathy Burke) so-called because she tends to order the burning of subjects who are not ardent Catholics like her.

Cate Blanchett

After Mary dies of cancer, unable to convince her half- sister Elizabeth (Blanchett) to pledge to Catholicism and yet unwilling to order her execution for treason, the film follows Elizabeth's early reign, in which she tries to cement her own power, while fending off romance and prospective suitors. Her main love interest is handsome Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes).

Fiennes & Blanchett

Elizabeth is also being pursued by the asinine Duc d'Anjou (Vincent Cassel), whose idea of courtship upon meeting the queen is to whisper pornographic suggestions into her ear as a more fun thing to do than kissing her hand, and who believes he is impressing Her Majesty by wearing a dress.

Geoffrey Rush

The film's political intrigues are handled by Elizabeth's lifelong, trusted confidant, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush). Walsingham thinks nothing of bedding his employer's leading female opponent, Mary of Guise, and making war, not love, when the lights are down low. The fate of her country changed dramatically when Elizabeth shed her girl-next-door image to become a thundering feminist and a powerful monarch.

Shekhar Kapur



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